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Tuesday, Oct 22, 2019

Charismatic leaders missing, major TN parties rely on election strategists

The DMK won 13 out of 22 vacant assembly seats in April this year in the bypolls.

tamil-nadu Updated: Sep 08, 2019 01:13 IST
M Manikandan
M Manikandan
Chennai
Since DMK partriarch Karunanidhi faded from the party’s campaign trail – first because of ill-health and later after his passing in August 2018 – the party has been using poll strategists to prepare for elections.
Since DMK partriarch Karunanidhi faded from the party’s campaign trail – first because of ill-health and later after his passing in August 2018 – the party has been using poll strategists to prepare for elections.(HT image)
         

Tamil Nadu’s main political parties are turning to election consultants to help prepare their strategy for the next assembly elections -- an unusual phenomenon in the Dravidian state where parties have traditionally relied on the charisma and persuasive skills of their leaders to attract voters to their fold.

In the absence of powerful leaders with larger-than-life images like Muthuvel Karunanidhi of the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) and J Jayalalithaa of the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK), the two main contestants, and their smaller rivals are looking at factors such as caste arithmetic and potential alliances to strike a chord with the electorate.

Since DMK partriarch Karunanidhi faded from the party’s campaign trail – first because of ill-health and later after his passing in August 2018 – the party has been using poll strategists to prepare for elections. DMK has been working with Sunil Konelelu of One Mind Generation Research Foundation since 2016.

Konelelu was the brain behind Karunanidhi’s son and successor MK Stalin’s “Namakku Naame’’ (we are only for us ) programme -- a statewide election tour he undertook ahead of the 2016 assembly polls. DMK, which suffered a humiliating defeat in the 2011 assembly polls, emerged as a stronger opposition with 89 MLAs in 2016 polls, which recently increased to 101 seats after by-polls in a house of 234.

The DMK won 13 out of 22 vacant assembly seats in April this year in the bypolls. DMK also swept the Lok Sabha polls with its allies, winning 39 of the 40 seats (including the lone seat in neighbouring Pondicherry). DMK, with 24 Lok Sabha seats, emerged as the third largest party in Parliament’s lower house.

The Dravidian party has again hired One Mind to help strategise the campaign ahead of the 2021 assembly polls. According to RS Bharathi, spokesperson for DMK, working with poll consultants is a vital part of election strategy now. Confirming that his party was working with the One Mind, he said: “The attitude of voters has changed a lot. So, we have to use different strategies to reach out to them. We have not given up on our policies or core Dravidian values. What we are doing is using poll consultants to package them to appeal to a newer generation of voters.”

The ruling AIADMK, hard hit by the emergence of factionalism after the passing of its supremo Jayalalithaa in December 2016, has also decided to opt for the services of a poll consultant. The AIADMK, under Edappadi K Palaniswami (EPS,) is learnt to have held an initial round of talks with the strategist John Arockiasamy, who runs JPG –PAC (Political Advocacy Committee).

Arockiasamy, 45, worked for former Karnataka CM Siddaramaiah in the 2018 state legislative assembly polls. Before that, he had provided his services to Pattali Makkal Katchi (PMK) of Tamil Nadu in the 2016 state polls. The PMK, under the guidance of Arockiasamy, had projected former Union health minister Anbumani Ramadoss as its CM candidate.

The”‘Maatram Munnetram Anbumani" (change, progress, Anbumani) slogan devised by JPG-PAC helped PMK to win 5% of votes in 2016 without any alliance. Arockiasamy’s co- strategist Girish Dhoke had acted as a consultant for the Shiva Sena when a feud was raging between cousins Raj and Uddhav Thackeray in 2006.

A top AIADMK leader and a former MLA said that there was a necessity for AIADMK to work with strategists. “Our leaders, MGR {MG Ramachandran} and Jayalalithaa could pull crores of people towards them. When Jayalalithaa died in 2016, many people had predicted that our party would be finished off. However, it is surviving still under the leadership CM EPS and his deputy O Panneerselvam.”

Pointing out that in the recent by-polls to 22 vacant assembly seats, the AIADMK had won nine seats and preserved itself in government, which was at risk of losing its majority in the assembly, the senior AIADMK leader, who did not want to be identified, said: “Our leaders have proven their capability to retain power and run the party even in the absence of charismatic leaders . As we are in a position to retain our vote bank formed by MGR and Jayalalithaa, it is essential to work on certain strategies and thus the need for consultants.”

Babu Murugavel, an AIADMK spokesperson and former MLA, concedes that the absence of charismatic leaders like Karunanidhi and Jayalalithaa might be a reason for the advent of poll consultants in Tamil Nadu.

“I cannot comment on whether our party has signed an agreement with a particular consultant at this stage. However it is true that in the absence of the charismatic leaders like Jayalalithaa, poll consultants may be an additional strength while planning,” he added.

According to the JPG-APC team, they are in the initial stage of talks with AIADMK, but a final agreement is yet to materialise.

“We are not working like IPAC (Indian Political Action Committee of Prashant Kishor) to form governments. We focus on building leaders. As of now, we are working for branding the rainwater harvesting (programme) in TN. The clarity on working with AIADMK will come in the upcoming days,” said a spokesperson for JPG – APC.

Besides the two main Dravidan parties, actor Kamal Haasan’s Makkal Needhi Maiam (MNM) is working with the strategist and Janata Dal (United) vice-president Prashant Kishor’s political consultancy IPAC.

“To strengthen our party ahead of 2021 polls, we have been widening the‘party’s organisational structure. We are working with Prasant Kishor’s team to put up a better show in the 2021 polls,” said Murali Abbas, a spokesperson for the MNM, which fared poorly in this year’s Lok Sabha elections from Tamil Nadu.

According to political analyst Selvaraj Sankaraiah, the increasing popularity of poll consultants is because of the changing nature of politics in Tamil Nadu, specially after the demise of Karunanidhi and Jayalalithaa.

“The Dravidian party leaders, including Karunanidhi and Jayalalithaa, would never allow anybody from outside to interfere in their party affairs as they were the final word. However, now the AIADMK under EPS-OPS and DMK under MK Stalin, are relying on poll strategists. Karunanidhi, Jayalalithaa and even their mentors ensured that the poll campaign revolved around them. Their charisma was their biggest asset. However, both the EPS-OPS duo and Stalin are a pale shadow compared to them. They have to toil and strategise to lure votes. Thus the need for consultants ahead of 2021 polls,” he said.

First Published: Sep 08, 2019 01:13 IST

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